Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

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Although I was an English major in college, and my primary mode of artistic connection has always been literature, I somehow ended up with a surprising number of musicologist friends. Well, four of them anyway, which seems like a lot to me. One of the four is currently finishing up her musicology doctorate at UCLA, and I remember that when she started her program she was intimidated by the presence, on faculty, of controversial music critic Susan McClary. McClary's work is divisive among musicologists because she has dared to take methods of criticism developed in literary and sociology circles - feminist, post-colonialist, queer studies and other criticisms that interrogate social contexts of art - and to apply them to Western art music, which has traditionally considered itself immune from such interrogations of "meaning" (many musicologists believe that music doesn't "mean" anything, but simply exists). My friend was a little wowed by McClary's rock-star status, but also conflicted because she found some of the critic's stances to be over the top. I remember her specifically citing an essay in which McClary claims that it's possible to tell that Tchaikovsky was homosexual just by listening to his Fourth Symphony. Eyebrows raised all around. So I was amused and intrigued when, a few years later, another of the four, knowing that I enjoy critical literary theory, gave me a copy of McClary's seminal Feminine Endings as a birthday present (thanks, Rachel!).

Now, maybe I'm just hardened by years of reading criticism in the more liberal field of literary studies. I have read some serious crackpot critics in my time, and McClary? Does not strike me as a crackpot. She doesn't even strike me as over-the-top. In fact, her points seem to me eminently well-argued and reasonable. Let's take that essay on Tchaikovsky, for example. She does not actually argue that a listener can tell he's gay by listening to his music. In fact, she explicitly rejects any line of reasoning that would attempt to claim any such thing. What she actually writes is that certain patterns in the Fourth Symphony - patterns traditionally derided by music critics for failing to conform with accepted symphonic practice - are not actually failures after all, but conscious attempts to diverge from the standard symphonic narrative and tell a different kind of story. McClary carefully outlines the traditional symphonic narrative structure, which bears a strong resemblance to the archetypal Hero's Quest narrative in literature: a hero starts at "home base" (a given key and/or theme), but must leave it and venture into uncharted territory. He meets with the often-feminine Other (the second theme, often referred to in early musicology as the "feminine" theme), which represents either a threat he must overcome or a victim he must save; a struggle ensues. In either case, the second, "feminine" theme is assimilated, by the end of the symphony, into the key in which the hero began, and he returns home triumphant, having proved himself. In Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony all this is problematized: critics have complained that the first ("masculine") theme is overly passive, insufficiently virile (yes! music critics complain about such things!), and that the first movement never satisfactorily resolves. McClary argues that the composer is merely trying to tell a different story than the one usually communicated symphonically: Tchaikovsky's narrative involves a protagonist trapped between two antagonists, unable to realize his full potential. This seems totally reasonable to me, and McClary backs it up with careful technical attention to the score. Given the careful groundwork she has laid regarding the long history of thinking about "masculine" and "feminine" symphonic themes, her next point seems reasonable as well (the bracketed text is mine):

For what we have is a narrative in which the protagonist seems victimized both by patriarchal expectations [represented by the military background music that threatens to overwhelm the primary theme] and by sensual feminine entrapment [the sinuous, interrupting second theme]: both forces actively block the possibility of his self-development. Such a narrative resonates strongly with Tchaikovsky's biography. As a homosexual in a world of patriarchally enforced heterosexuality, his behavior was always being judged against cultural models of "real men." In fact, 1877 (the year of this symphony) was a crisis year in Tchaikovsky's psychosexual development: he finally yielded to social and paternal pressures to get married, with disastrous consequences for all concerned, and then attempted suicide because of his distress over the marriage and his clandestine sexuality. The extent to which these events colored his perceptions is revealed in his letters, and a strong sense of struggle and alienation likewise marks his programmatic description of the symphony.

This is a far cry from the claim that gay people write different music from straight people. All McClary is really saying here is that one's state of mind while making art can be reflected in the final product, and be read back into it later on - a claim that seems to me not only reasonable but inescapably obvious. How could the dramatic events of Tchaikovsky's personal life during this period fail to have an effect on his compositional output? Can you imagine claiming such a thing about any other form of art? We accept as indisputable that, for example, TS Eliot's traumatic experience of World War I helped shape his worldview and can be read back into The Waste Land. It is widely accepted that Bernini's Counter-Reformational political patronage influenced his presentation of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. So why should instrumental music be any different? That is the question McClary asks repeatedly throughout the essays in Feminine Endings, and she answers in lively, readable prose that it is not, in fact, different at all.

There was only one essay in which I thought her claims veered into the strident or tenuous, and, interestingly, I found that same essay to be the most thought-provoking of the bunch. In it, she takes modern composer Janika Vandervelde's piece Genesis II as a jumping-off point to talk about whether there can (or should) be a repertory of "women's music": in other words, music made by women which has a specifically female sound, distinguishable from that made by men. She details the widespread negative response to such an idea on the part of female composers who have accepted the idea of the universality and a-gendered quality of Western instrumental music, and want to be recognized as composers, not female composers. While McClary is sympathetic with this position, she questions whether those elements of Western instrumental music so often granted "universal" status are really universal at all. In the most fascinating section of the essay (to me, at least), she points out that the current widely-accepted musical model of striving after the desired tonal resolution, of the individualistic, hero's-quest symphony (not just applicable to symphonies, but also to rock songs and many other forms) only gained its current place of unquestioned dominance after the seventeenth century. Prior to this time, she says, there were other musical forms that stressed pleasure over desire, that were about existing voluptuously in the moment, rather than striving after change. In the age of imperialism, conquest, and the rise of capitalism, though, the current quest-based narrative became so dominant that many of us just accept it as "the way music works." This singleness of structure is obviously detrimental: if there is no musical model for pleasure, but only for desire, then attaining the desired goal is a kind of musical death, since the piece is over as soon as the goal is reached. McClary goes on to make the claim that, when she presents her graduate students with examples of this earlier musical mode, the male students tend to find it confusing and boring (complaining that "nothing happens), whereas the female students tend to delight in it, recognizing something they knew to be true but which they had never heard articulated musically before.

Now let me say, a whole spate of warning bells go off in my head when people start talking about a "female music." I am extremely reluctant to accept essentializing notions that equate the feminine with unchanging, cyclical Nature and the male with striving individualism. And I definitely think there are points in this essay where McClary crosses the line into Dworkin-esque condemnation of all tonal music as essentially violent and imperialist. That said, when I think about my all-time favorite narratives, I have to admit that they all stress exactly the sense of voluptuous being-in-time that McClary describes. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (particularly the "Time Passes" section), Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, the novels and short stories of Eudora Welty: while all these works have narrative arcs, it is the beauty of the prose and the gorgeously vivid evocation of specific, subjective moments in time that really distinguishes the experience of reading them. None of them feature absolutist conclusions; the emotional ends tend not to be wrapped up neatly, and the reader must accept ambiguity and compromise. And, predictably, critics of these novels tend to complain that they are "boring" and that "nothing happens" in them, EXACTLY like the male students McClary describes in her classes. There are, of course, male fans of Woolf, Robinson, and Welty: in fact, the most ardent Woolf fan I've ever met was a man. But McClary's essay does give me food for thought, and a new critical tool for thinking about different kinds of narrative structures.

(Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality was my eighth and 700-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography